When I was a child in the 1980s I lived in Rochester, NY, which was a Conrail town. Railroading was dirty, rusty, and an endless string of blue engines pulling the filthiest cars you could imagine. Coal trains were steady, and COFC didn't really exist. However, when I received my Model Railroader magazine every month I was somewhat disheartened to find articles about western railroads, specifically the UP or ATSF, as well as lots of narrow gauge. When eastern roads were shown, they were usually not contemporary layouts or they were traction layouts. I could probably count on one hand the number of 1980s Conrail layouts shown.
But, there was author Michael Tylick. His Conrail module series based on Conrails Boston Line was as close to hitting home as could be hoped for. Everything he did was weathered, but not the western "dusty" weathering. His stuff was dirty and gritty. And, his methods were simple to apply and used inexpensive materials. Some of his articles were out of my scope of ability (scratchbuilt trolley cars and a White Castle restaurant come to mind) but I loved reading his articles anyway. He was a consummate scratchbuilder, and I learned a lot from him. I met him once at the Springfield train show and I likely embarrassed him by asking for my picture taken with him. (Seeing the picture now, I am more embarrassed than he was!) He was quite polite then, and he still is. I try and say hello every Springfield show, and I enjoyed his presentation at the recent NMRA convention on scratchbuilding structures that are along the edges of layouts. His current website is http://www.raildesignservices.com/.
Another favorite author as a child was Lee Vande Visse. However, it is an odd choice because he usually modeled old, narrow-gauge Colorado equipment. His layout construction series, the Crown Mountain Division, was the first real introduction I had to soldered tie, scratchbuilt track. He wrote about how to build a station using cast bricks, stone by stone. His weathering articles were fantastic including suggestions to leave wood outdoors to warp from the rain. His resin casting article made it look so easy. He made a paint-bottle rotating machine out of rotisserie grill hardware. His writing style was fluid and engaging. It didn't matter that most of his subjects were models of trains I didn't care about. I still wanted to do what he was doing. Sadly, he left us much too early and I don't think any magazine ever did a feature on his full layout.
Over the past decade or so I have developed a sense of what I am looking for on my layout, and as a result, I have identified several authors/modelers who emulate those traits. Today, the most realistic modeler that I have come across is Mike Confalone. His current layout is the Allagash Railway which is set in the state of Maine in the 1970s. It has been featured extensively in the Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine (http://model-railroad-hobbyist.com/node/15291) and also in Model Railroad Planning. Before that, he modeled the short line "Woodsville Terminal." His attention to detail in areas such as weathering and ground cover are mindblowing. He models the "fifth season" which is the mud season in early spring, a time that is rarely modeled elsewhere. It means trees are bare and poor modeling has no where to hide, but he pull it off well. I would love to see it sometime, but for now I shall drool over the pictures I have come across. By the way, he has released several instructional DVDs (here) that I watched several times. Even my wife enjoyed one of them. He recently released some on freight car weathering and I hope to pick them up in the future.
Another modeler in the same vein and certainly with the same eye for overall composition is Mike McNamara. His blog (here) showcases his modeling of the Maine Central in the late 1970s in the fall. The colors are a bit brighter, but they are so realistic you can just feel as if you are lost in the back woods on a September afternoon. His blog covers lots of interesting subjects like equipment detailing and scenery construction, and I have already learned a couple of new tricks because of him. I met Mike a couple of years ago at Springfield and saw some of his Freemo modules first-hand, and they looked even better in person.
Dick Elwell and his famous "Hoosac Valley Lines" is another modeler I try and take tips from. His layout is without a doubt the nicest layout I have every visited in person. And it should be, considering Dick has worked on it for over 50 years! Everything is done with a level of attention to detail that you cannot look at anything... be it a bustling city, a rural farm house, or a striking trestle, and not be in awe of it. Like George Sellios, he has also striven to model the north east with excellent bustling cities and lots of craftsman structures. However, he has spread out his cities with plenty of scenery between the towns so that when you leave the station you feel as if you are actually in the countryside. His chose to also model fall, a difficult thing to do without having the layout appear fake and orange. I think he pulled it off admirably.
Finally, he certainly is a modeler in every sense of the word, people may not associate Dave Frary anymore as a layout builder. It has been years since he built a Model Railroader magazine project layout, and it seems equally long since his collaborations with Bob Hayden on their Maine 2-foot gauge layouts which were built in HOn2.5. Certainly, Dave is probably most well known for his water-based scenery methods which have been memorialized in his Kalmbach books and magazine articles. Also, he wrote 222 Tips for Building Model Railroad Structures which is a fantastic book. Everyone has his scenery book on their shelves, but if you are at all considering scratchbuilding or even kitbashing structures you should find a copy of this. It may be out of print but can easily be found on Ebay and Amazon.
There are several blogs that I try and actively follow by modelers not already mentioned above. Three of the most interesting ones are written by Bernard Kempinski, Tom Patterson and Dave Abeles. All are featured in my "Favorite Blogs" list on the right hand column of my own blog. Bernard is a hard man to comprehend sometimes, as he has actively modeled in N scale, HO scale, and O scale with prototypes located in various areas of the country and even in different centuries. I especially love his current American Civil War layout. Trains of that period interest me greatly, but the poor running characteristics have always scared me from committing to them. I do have a couple Bachmann old-timer trains though for those times when I want to crank my throttle up and hope that the 4-4-0 makes it around without stalling. Tom's layout, on the other hand, is an excellent blend of proto-freelancing. His trackwork and detailing are quite exquisite, and some of the challenges he faces (small space, big ambitions) are things I have to deal with too. For different reasons, I also enjoy Dave's Conrail layout in part because it models a childhood favorite railroad. It is wonderful to see a railroad bathed in Conrail blue! Plus, he is modeling central New York which I am familiar with. The distinct signals, equipment, paint schemes, and bring me back to my younger railfanning experiences. I know that if I moved back to Rochester I would be modeling the local scene there from the 1980s... Conrail in the blood I suppose.
Bits and Pieces
Finally, there are a couple of authors whom I cannot say I entirely "get," even though I will take away parts of what they are doing. The best example that comes to mind is Tony Koester. I think it is fair to say that any modeler who doesn't recognize his name must be living in a cave. As for pronunciation, it rhymes with "Custer" though I didn't know that originally and once when I ran into him at a train show I could only say "Hey Tony" because I didn't want to botch his last name. Anyway, at this point I don't really want to hear him talk about the NKP anymore but I do agree with his concept of "owning" it. I am trying to follow in his steps and learn as much about the D&H for my era as he did for the NKP. I also didn't understand his Time Table and Train Order (TT&TO) operating concepts until I attended one of his clinics. The beginning slides made sense, but after awhile I got lost. I am more of a "drive the train round and round" anyway. But, I like to read about his adventures in modeling a prototype as accurately as
My wife and I are both of the opinion that there are many fantastic layouts out there loaded with details, but they somehow just don't grab us. For one, I am thinking of George Sellios' Franklin and South Manchester railroad. We went to visit it a year ago and it was stunning, to say the least. Everywhere you looked were details piled onto details. It all looked very realistic. But, it also looked busy. And, it reflected a time period that was quite foreign to me. I didn't grow up in the age of steam, and most brick warehouses are either gone or repainted. Craftsmen kits are wonderful and I hope to build some one day in the future, but most are not appropriate for a 1980s layout. In other words, the layout was fun to look at but much of what it featured didn't translate to my layout. However, if I could even have 1% of his passion and commitment I would be content.
Finally, I am extremely disappointed that I moved to the Capitol District area and joined the NMRA just after local modeler Lou Sassi left for the South. I discovered he lived within a short drive of where I lived, and he was both an excellent modeler and photographer. Even though I have lived here since 2004, I did not join the NMRA until 2010... just a couple of years after he left. He would have been an excellent person to get to know. Plus, his "ground" goop scenic treatment concept is something I really think I will enjoy doing. Not only that, but I bet my wife would also find it fun and perhaps help me with. I can't wait to try it out on my layout.
I guess there are a couple of takeaways here. First, not everyone can be a writer just as much as not everyone can be a car mechanic or a doctor. If the written words aren't both engaging and articulate then something will be lost in translation. The people I learn most from are both of those things. Taking lots of nice pictures which can serve as the inspiration for your own modeling efforts is helpful, and they describe their reasoning process and procedures for accomplishing various tasks that lead up to their models. Second, I am drawn towards those who focus on the modeling the North east portion of the US during a time period I am familiar with.